Former Gift Shop Volunteer Gives Nearly $2 Million to Detroit Institute of Arts

That's about $89,500 for each year she volunteered there.

The Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo: Barb Crawford/Flickr.
Elizabeth Verdow.<br>Photo: Detroit Institute of Arts.

Elizabeth Verdow.
Photo: Detroit Institute of Arts.

The Detroit Institute of Arts is $1.7 million richer today, thanks to a former schoolteacher. Elizabeth Verdow also volunteered in the gift shop at the museum for 19 years.

That’s about $89,500 for each year, or more than the highest-level public school teacher’s annual salary, according to statistics from the National Council on Teacher Equality.

A decade before she died in 2014 at the age of 86, Verdow indicated that she was planning a gift to the museum, but gave no idea of its size, according to the Detroit Free Press.

“We were delighted and thrilled,” the museum’s planned giving officer, Deborah Odette, told the Free Press. “I have learned never to underestimate people. Just because someone had a long career as a schoolteacher doesn’t mean they might not have means of amassing wealth, if they invest wisely and carefully and live modestly. She obviously loved her work at the museum.”

The museum’s contemporary art department is the biggest winner, with $1.26 million of the gift earmarked for acquisitions in that area. The department’s holdings include works by Francis Bacon, Donald Judd, Joan Mitchell, Claes Oldenburg, Judy Pfaff, and Andy Warhol.  Crain’s reports that future works acquired will be labeled as part of the Elizabeth Verdow Contemporary Art Acquisition Fund.

The remaining $450,000 goes to the less sexy line item: the museum’s endowment for annual operations. The museum is currently in a campaign to raise $170 million in endowment funds by 2023.

“She was the quietest and most unassuming person I’ve ever met as a volunteer,” Anna Helkowsky, the manager of the gift shop in 2001-12, told the Free Press. “She was one of those wonderful people who would come in and just say, ‘What may I help you with today?’”

The gift comes a little over a year after the museum escaped the threat of a selloff of its city-owned artworks in a so-called “grand bargain” with the city, which had declared bankruptcy.

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